Here in America, we are, at
least to all appearances, spoiled for choice in the wide, well-stocked aisles
of our daily lives as consumers. Cars
and computers, colleges and health clubs spread out across the open price
range, each promising to be “worth it”.
In our political lives as citizens, however, we have fewer choices. In fact, we may have only two at the end of
the day, when the buzz and frenzy are exhausted and we are left alone with our
thoughts. Such was the conviction of
Socrates in his cellhis friends gathered roundawaiting execution for telling
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Although he was the only one about to die,
Socrates was fearless, while his friends, at no personal risk, were
hopeless. Socrates had made one choice
and they another.
Whether we find ourselves in a
prison cell or a polling place, our choices do seem to come down to these two:
fear or hope. Throughout the history of
Western political philosophyfrom Plato’s Republic to Machiavelli’s Prince to
Hobbes’s Leviathon to the Bush Doctrinewe are presented with the same option:
whether to live from fear or to live from hope. I have used “hope” here to stand in for classical “desire” or
“love” (eros) which is unlikely to be
understood by us as it was earlier meant; for its proper and ultimate object
was for centuries understood as the best good, the summum bonum, on which our ultra-modern or, what’s worse,
postmodern minds are all too likely to fall blank. Desire, for us, is mostly private and selfish, something we keep
to and for ourselves.
The highest good was once
understood as a common good, a telos or
final aspiration that, unlike oil, is only enhanced, never diminished, as it is
shared. That there is such a good, that
its pursuit is our shared responsibility, and that its enjoyment is our
ultimate purposethese are elusive and hard sayings for us today. After all, we are all but convinced that
there is no singular good, only goods, goods that divide us, pit us against one
another, bring us to blows. These
consumer goods are limited and we consumers are not, neither in number nor in
hunger. A world in which countless,
covetous individuals and individual states are all after the same few things as
if their lives and happiness depended on themthat is indeed a dangerous world
in which fear would appear the most reasonable and inevitable posture.
Socrates and Plato, speaking
with one voice, noted that we have only two basic passions: fear and
desire. Desire, as they understood it,
lifts us up and brings us together, for its only true object is either
infinitely shareable or nothing at all.
In other words, desire is the longing affirmation of things imagined but
as yet unseen. We call this hope. Fear, on the other hand, knows its object
all too intimatelydeath. Death, of
course, assumes many shapes and moves at many speeds; but it is always a matter
of diminishment and denial, ending in nothingness. This is the summum malum,
the worst evilviolent, unforeseen death at the hands of another, at least as
Hobbes witnessed and described it. Summum bonum vs. summum malum, love and affirmation vs. fear and suspicionthese are
our choices, outlined and espoused across the centuries and currently on the
campaign trail. We can either live in
accord with what is highest in us, or navigate by what is lowest in us. Naturally we want it both ways, the sweet frozen
swirl. Like Machiavelli’s Prince, we
want both to love and to fear, to be both loved and feared; but, wants aside,
he was clear on this even if we are not: we have to choose, set our priorities,
decide what is real and what only pretence.
Machiavelli chose to ridicule the highest good, to scorn hope as sheer
illusion, and to propose that we “adopt the beast” as our tutor. There are armed prophets and unarmed
prophets, he pointed out; and the armed prophets always win, while the unarmed
prophets always lose. Armed force
decides everything. War is our natural
state. We must either be at war or hard
at practice in the ways of war at all times.
The rest is folly and illusion.
If we manage to be loved for a while, all the better; but what is
essential is to be feared. Old words,
old advice, recycled in the media as the latest common sense. Imagine a telephone ringing at 3am and you
get the point.
Returning to the deathbed of
Socrates, we find the hemlocked philosopher encircled by his closest friends
who are all but collapsing in grief and fear.
His advice is to consider for a moment how what is nearest at hand
always appears greatest. Move your thumb closer and closer to your eye and it
will soon seem larger than a mountain, the sky, or the entire world. Move it away and it gets smaller and
eventually becomes a mere thumb again.
Whatever is pressed against our mind’s eye seems the greatest, most
urgent, most real matter there is, demanding our attention to the exclusion of
all else. This is the way that fear and
its politics captivate a nation and lead them to the low road and to ruin. Whether we dial 9-1-1 or 911 we connect to
our worst fears. The alternative is to
give our fears a rest and to aspire to be more than an object of fear to others. We might even listen in a spirit of hope to
the words of Albert Camus and wonder what he meant when he wrote that the
greatest gift to history and to the future is generosity to the present.
--Bob Meagher is Professor of
Humanities at Hampshire College.